WHEN in 1817 Walter Scott was visited by the American author Washington Irving, he did not expect to be told that his guest was unimpressed by his beloved borderlands. On hearing Irving’s reservations about the ‘monotonous’ landscape, Scott paused before replying with admirable restraint: ‘to my eye, these grey hills, and all this wild border country, have beauties peculiar to themselves. I like the very nakedness of the land; it has something bold, and stern, and solitary about it.’
Those are the qualities that Ian Crofton soon discovered, on his self-imposed walk along the border last year. However, by the end of this journey, having picked his way along the demarcated line between Scotland and England, he seems very unlikely to have concluded, as did Scott, that ‘if I did not see the heather, at least once a-year, I think I should die!’ One’s impression, rather, is that by the time he reaches the North Sea, Crofton would be only too glad to hang up his boots and sink into an armchair.
The borderlands have an allure that has attracted writers of a romantic cast of mind long before Scott became their most famous laureate. Whether this has something to do with the existential nature of any artificial barrier or divide is difficult to know. Is French or Swedish or Polish literature littered with tales of cross-border feuds, confused identities and torn loyalties? It would not be surprising. Even so, one doubts there are many parts of Europe that have seen a history of strife to match this turbulent arena. For centuries the scene of argument and conflict, murder, carnage and sorrow, the borders have been a stage on which each era has played out its ambitions and resentments. Whether the actors were kings and nobles or peasants and thugs, the result has been the same. The area is steeped in vile deeds and colourful myths, whose memory haunts the landscape for any with an iota of imagination, and perhaps also those with none.
Yet one does not need to have swallowed a history book to find the place intriguing. A great part of its appeal has to do with the land itself, which contains some of the most bleak and inhospitable terrain in the British Isles. Grim though it can be, however, the border country is without doubt enchanting. Sometimes exquisite, it is always beguiling.
Drawn by the fascination it exerts – especially, one suspects, for the Scots – Crofton set himself the task of tramping the border with his rucksack and tent, to see what it had to reveal to the modern eye. His route takes him through the wastes of the Debatable Lands near Liddesdale in the west (‘Why anyone would want this wilderness is unclear’), to the Kielder Forest, over the Cheviots, and down into the Merse, whose tranquil lushness belies the armies and raiders that have trampled it down the years. From there it is but a hop over a few fields and electric fences to the coast where the much fought-over Berwick-upon-Tweed sits. A whisker away from Scotland, this quaint town even now remains ambivalent about where its allegiance lies.
Inevitably, in the months leading up to the referendum on independence, Crofton hoped his route would illuminate the idea of nationality and place. ‘I sought to find what makes us different,’ he writes. To that end he shoots questions at unsuspecting strangers, in tourist information offices, or pubs, or out on the hills, inquiring if they feel themselves to be borderers rather than English or Scottish. No great profundity is offered on either side, but he is put in his place by a man he ambushed while at work in his garden: ‘I don’t know if there’s such a feeling as feeling Scottish,’ he said in a dampening manner most Scots will recognise.
Starting his trek on the Solway Firth at Gretna in early summer, Crofton – a Scot who lives in London – planned to cross to the east in a single foray. As he soon learned, however, ‘Border miles are triple trength’. In less than a week he was defeated by rain, cold and wind. Rather than inflict this weather on his son and daughter who joined him for a few days, he cut his losses and skipped the eastern Cheviots, bolstered by the thought, he tells us, that as Jean-Luc Godard said, ‘a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order’. He returned to the hills in a July heatwave, when even Australian tourists took cover, and then picked up the trail for the final leg in November, six months after he began. In the interim he came back for what he calls an interlude, to witness the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden. His somewhat shambolic depiction of that event is a welcome record of a historic occasion, though his confusion in the face of a welter of Common Riders, whose roles and identities are hard to ascertain, makes for a less informative account than it might have been.
Breaking his journey, however, was his most serious error. What should have been a seamless narrative thread immediately loses momentum, the trip revealed less as a compelling quest and more as a device on which to hang a book. Indeed, Crofton seems to have told almost everyone he encounters that he is writing a book, though whether from pride, or to explain his presence in remote dales, or simply to excuse the dictaphone he sticks under their noses is unclear. There are enjoyable moments and vignettes in this journey, but there is a gaucheness about Crofton’s approach that grates. Not the least of his tics is a tendency to quote himself, replaying for us what he said into his tape. Thus, on his last day, when he has just escaped a field of inquisitive pigs, we listen to his running commentary: ‘And now the sheep are chasing towards us like mad bastards. What the fuck? [laughs]… I think there’s something about when the low light comes, they change from sheep into lions.’
Where previous generations rightly feared an encounter with one of the many killers and thieves who terrorised the region, Crofton encounters only a bull and cows, a grumpy ghillie, and a man in a tractor who does not return his cheery wave. ‘Maybe it was the farmer who’d strung up the dead moles on the barbed wire,’ he speculates, thinking of the 32 gentlemen in velvet he had seen pinned, like beads on an abacus, near the River Sark. That striking image, in stark black and white, is one of the many photos that illustrate his adventure.
A reference book editor by trade, Crofton interleaves his itinerary with snippets of border lore, which add depth to what would otherwise feel like a rambler’s journal, replete with notes on flowers, wildlife and weather. Not that there is anything amiss with such detail. It is just that Crofton’s prose feels stretched uncomfortably thin, as if he has had trouble finding enough to tell us beyond the discomforts of the tussocky, treacherous route and the many closed pubs he encountered. This may explain the conversations with people he relays almost verbatim. These exchanges eat up space but would have benefited from pruning. A particular low point, for this reader at least, is the blethering he imagines between sheep outside his tent. ‘Where’s my mum, said a third. Over here, dear, the mother said. I’m here too, said another. Where’s my mum, said a… Ba. Baa. Baaa.’
Yet while he is not a natural raconteur, and his commentary can veer towards the tutelary, Crofton manages to capture enough of the contradictory, thrawn, unknowable flavour of this distinctive terrain to make his passage through it engaging. Somewhat surprisingly, though, given the task he has set himself, he declares his mistrust of the role and purpose of borders in the opening pages. ‘What moral justification can there be for treating somebody differently just because he or she was born on the other side of a border? To attempt to justify such discriminatory treatment would involve lending an arbitrary line on a map some kind of moral authority: on this side of the border live the deserving; on the other, the undeserving.’ While one sympathises when he rails against ignorant antipathy towards immigrants, there is a degree of naivety in his loathing of the unavoidable delineation of governmental authority implicit in any border. It is prejudice of his own, however, that seems to animate his reflection on seeing a Ugandan couple posing for photos at the sign on the edge of Cumbria that reads: Scotland Welcomes You. ‘I hoped that Scotland would welcome them,’ he comments darkly, without offering any reason why it would not.
This belief that man-made borders are inherently crass or unfair becomes a refrain, Crofton putting our need for order and segregation into a grander perspective. Early on he observes, ‘the river will go on tinkling and clattering towards the sea long after the motorway has shattered into sand, long after the very notion of borders has faded from human memory’. This is only the first of several reminders of the transience of such distinctions. While it adds nothing to the discussion about the border and its influence, it does catch the spirit of the place: its independence, indifference, and the sense that, no matter what dramas and conflicts are visited upon it, the borderlands remain untouchable and foreign, even to those who live there.
Walking the Border: A Journey between Scotland and England
Birlinn, £16.99, ISBN 978 1 78027 207 8, 246pp